In the name of God


April 13, 2016

A man walks past damaged structures at the spot where a massive fire broke out on Sunday during fireworks display at the Puttingal Devi temple complex in Kollam district, Kerala, on Monday (AP)

Sunday’s accident at a Kerala temple which claimed over a hundred lives tells us that the time has come to put safety of devotees above man-made rituals. But, will anyone bell the cat?

Religion and accidents seem to have a way of going hand in hand. Why accidents should happen when the believers go to the house of the very God who is supposed to protect them is a question that relatives and the dear ones will always wonder.

But as it happens many a time, man-made tragedies have a way of communicating a message to the people that over-indulgence can lead to situations as dangerous as the latest episode in the southern state of Kerala.

Ironical as it may sound, Kerala is the state that also has in its official logo the name God. It is known as ‘God’s Own Country’ because of its scenic backwaters. And, it is in this state that, possibly, the worst accident took place in recent times on Sunday at the Puttingal Devi temple at Kollam, 65km from the state’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

Compared to the various other accidents that have taken place at similar temple festivals, Kollam certainly tops the list with a death toll of over a 100 and, as of now, and still counting. The sequence of events that led to this tragedy is worthwhile looking at because it is not something that occurs only at a temple festival.

Accidents like a stampede have occurred at many places, across the world, where large masses of people assemble to pray. Such accidents, interestingly, have been rather secular. Its victims could be devotees at dargahs or mausoleum of the saints, churches or even Hajj pilgrims.

In Kerala alone, a rough estimate of the number of people who have died in fire accidents in the last few decades has crossed the 750 mark. The shocking aspect of Kollam was that everyone was aware that the fireworks competition was illegal.

To the uninitiated, competition takes place with various varieties of fireworks. If one team bursts a specific number of crackers or rockets, the other team would have to burst a larger number of them. And, to play this dangerous game, a large quantity of ‘gun powder’ would be stored nearby, a recipe, so to speak, for a perfect disaster. And, that is precisely what happened.

A spark from one of those firecrackers zoomed into the store room where arsenal had been kept. It happened to be a part of the concrete structure which was also the office of the temple committee. The result was that the explosion brought down the building but its parts became concrete missiles to kill or grievously injure the large number of people assembled there. The concrete missiles, in fact, are the explanation for the large number of devotees admitted to hospitals with seriously damaged collar bones.

About the dead, the local people had to literally hand over a hand or a leg or a part of the head strewn all across the houses nearby.

Grotesque as it may sound, the fact remains that as a people, regardless of the community, race or country, human beings seem to forget that there is way to also show faith. It is in this context that the current debate in Kerala is interesting. The question is whether it is necessary to carry on a ritual like bursting fireworks, as some believe is one way of appeasing the God or Goddess.

In fact, the best example for ending this practice of fireworks competition has come not in recent years but more than 60 years ago by the Sabarimala temple. The temple authorities simply banned the use of fireworks in 1952 when 68 persons died in the fireworks accident.

How many will follow this example would be difficult to say now. But, as it has happened in the past, strict implementation of rules by the administration has led to curbing of harmful practices. The answer lies, perhaps, in a reform movement to curb commercialisation of religious places, regardless of whether they are dargahs, temples or churches.

The down side

The ups and downs in the relationship between India and Pakistan may appear quite exasperating for a common reader. At one level, it may appear like the relationship will look up when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies down to greet his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

At a different level, it raises eyebrows when, within a week, a terror attack takes place on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot. And, again things may appear to be getting back to some reasonableness when a Pakistan team visits Pathankot as part of the Joint Investigation Team( JIT) to probe the attack.

But, the relationship goes back into the proverbial one step forward, two steps backward mode when Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, throws cold water over the probe issue. He believes it is fair for just one part of the JIT to visit one country but not the other part. Meaning the India team cannot visit Pakistan to investigate. Yet, he believes that reciprocity was not as important as cooperation between the two countries.

Quite contrary it may seem but that appears to be more a reflection of the dichotomous nature of the power structure that exists in Pakistan. In fact, it comes across as one of the best examples of how the civilian side responds to India’s friendly moves and how the Army-ISI axis disposes off its own political leadership’s aspirations. There is little doubt in India that it was the point of the view of the Army-ISI axis, also known as the real state, which Basit was articulating.

Why he did that at this stage will be known sooner than later. It is like Pakistan having found an alleged Indian spy, a former Navy officer, in its troublesome province, Balochistan and, then indulging in chest beating to point out that its suspicions about India’s effort to destabilise Pakistan had been proved. India has agreed that the alleged spy is an Indian citizen but has flatly denied that he was part of the establishment. Pakistan, however, does not seem to differentiate between a spy and a person indulging in terrorist activity.

It is fairly clear that the arrest of this alleged spy, Kulbhushan Jhadav, is bound to be used to counter India’s insistence that terrorism should be the number one subject on the agenda whenever talks are held between the two countries. Pakistan, as is well known, has been running its proxy war against India by deploying its cadets from its terror factory to indulge in numerous attacks, best exemplified by the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11.

At the same time, Pakistan is internally facing the consequences of its policy of marginalisation of communities and becoming the epicentre of terrorism, at least in this part of the world. The internal strife in that country has now led to its fighting its own people in all its provinces. But, it has been effectively portraying itself as a victim of terrorism to enhance its geo-political importance in the region to secure all kinds of aid, including military aid, from the US and China.

It means that even if India bends backwards, the effort will be made to make it look like the villain. Therefore, a longer than usual stalemate in the relationship between the two countries cannot be ruled out. It could, perhaps, also depend upon a nudge or a diktat from the US or Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. In other words, the trust deficit between the two countries can only increase because the political leadership cannot outplay the real state.

Tailpiece

Many have a cynical way of looking at the administration. They seriously believe, not without reason necessarily, that it does not help to complain.

But, 80 year old Pankajakshiamma, is obviously made of a different mettle. She complained some months ago to point out the damage her house suffers every time fireworks go off at the annual festival at the ‘temple of fireworks’ at Kollam. An official did visit her, inspected the house and left without promising anything.

It was only on Saturday when some persons walked into her house to threaten her to withdraw her complaint that she got to know that the administration had acted upon her complaint. Her daughter and son-in-law, who had flown down from the UK to be with her during this stressful period, were present.

The family refused to budge. To reduce the impact of the noise, however, the family moved to a friend’s place about 200m away from their ancestral house. After the explosion, the family realised that their house was damaged beyond belief and completely ‘unliveable’.

“We wouldn’t have been alive if we had stayed in our house,’’ said her daughter, Anita Prakash. If this is not luck, what is ?

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]